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Mountaineers Preparing for Big 12 Basketball

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MORGANTOWN -

West Virginia basketball is hoping to have a more successful debut in the Big 12 than its football counterparts.

Based on early indications from a team that lost to Duquesne and has struggled with many seemingly lesser opponents on the non-conference slate, outperforming an underperforming gridiron gang is a tall order.

More than the 7-5 record, there is something in the way the players and especially the head coach talk about their own deficiencies that make finding the positives even more difficult.

Nearly every postgame press conference with Bob Huggins, after a win or a loss, is filled with critiques of what the team as a whole or individual players were incapable of in that specific game or in the week of practice leading up to it.

An especially disheartened coach met with the media after his Mountaineers had fought for a 74-67 win over Eastern Kentucky and when asked to describe his use of a dribble drive offense, put the focus on what his team cannot do rather than what it can.

Through it all, Huggins acknowledges that it is his task to fix the issues that confront WVU each time it takes the court. But Huggins displays a lack of confidence that he once exuded when speaking of the Mountaineers before the season began.

Remember back to the Gold and Blue Debut game in October, when Huggins told the gathered crowd that WVU had been picked to finish sixth in a 10-team league. They booed in response, and he said he agreed with their sentiment.

"Honestly, if we're the sixth-best team in the league, then it's a hell of a league," he said to a roar of applause.

At this point, his team has the worst record of any team in the new league, though the Mountaineers have the seventh-best RPI among the 10 programs, at No. 99, according to RealTimeRPI.com.

They have also faced the 43rd-toughest strength of schedule in the nation, better than all but three Big 12 foes' schedules. No team in the conference has played fewer home games to this point in the season than West Virginia.

So while there is plenty to be down on the Mountaineers about, there is also no denying that though they have lost to lesser opponents or have had to grind it out with a team like Eastern Kentucky that should have been put away just after halftime, the ups and downs of the first 12 games should have at least served well in preparing WVU for real competition.

The conference quest begins on Saturday with a team that has already beaten the Mountaineers. Oklahoma took out WVU 77-70 in November as part of the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., and after leading with just over five minutes left to play, Huggins' squad were outscored 15-7 the rest of the way.

Since that meeting took place within tournament play, it did not count toward either team's conference record.

This next one counts.

"We're going to have to be ready. It's here now," sophomore guard Juwan Staten said of the Big 12. "We've already played Oklahoma, we know a little bit of what they're going to do. We've just got to start putting it all together. I think at times, we've shown that we can do some things better than others, but as a team, we can do all everything that we need to do. We can play defense, we can guard the ball, we can make shots. We've just got to put it all together for Big 12 play."

Perhaps the excitement of conference play, the level of competition and the knowledge of just how much is on the line each time they step on the court will get all of the components that Staten speaks of to align, forming an improved ball club than what the first leg of the season has shown.

With 19 games remaining before whatever the postseason brings WVU, there is no time for slow improvements. They need to happen now, before the Sooners step on the Coliseum court on Saturday. 

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